Hugh Johnson is one of the world’s best-selling wine writers, known for The World Atlas of Wine and his annual Pocket Wine Book, both of which were first published in the 1970s. Johnson has also written 25 other groundbreaking books, including the remarkable The Story of Wine.
After graduating with a degree in English literature from King’s College at Cambridge, Johnson became a feature writer for Condé Nast magazines, including Vogue and House & Garden. He went on to write and edit for Gourmet, The New York Times, The Sunday Times, The World of Fine Wine, and other publications.
In addition to books on wine, he has published multiple award-winning best-selling books on horticulture, including The International Book of Trees and The Principles of Gardening.
Hugh Johnson was Decanter Magazine’s “Man of the Year” in 1995, was awarded France’s Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Mérite in 2003. In 2007, he was named an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for “services to wine-making and horticulture.”
Learn more about Hugh Johnson by reading the written interview below.
Karen MacNeil: The wine industry today must be quite different than it was when you first started writing about wine in the 1960s. What about the industry do you feel has changed most?
Hugh Johnson: 100 things have changed—people, places. Maybe one quiet thing almost everywhere: riper grapes.
KM: In 1990, you co-founded the Royal Tokaji Wine Company in Hungary with a group of investors. Why Hungary, and why then?
HJ: Tokay (I’m using the old spelling) Aszu from Hungary was the world’s most expensive and prestigious wine through the 18th and 19th centuries. Then it was killed by the First World War, the Bolshevik Revolution, and the communist regime. It was the single undisputed great wine stuck behind the Iron Curtain. When the Iron Curtain collapsed in 1989, it was a logical mission to rescue it. Peter Vinding-Diers (an old Danish friend and wine-making pioneer in South Africa, Bordeaux, and Italy) and I spearheaded a group of mainly Danish investors to revive the wine. We started in 1990. Now the Royal Tokaji Wine Company (in new hands) is world famous. I’ve never made a penny out of it.
KM: It is the rare author who is an award-winning writer of best sellers on more than one topic, and yet you are for both wine and horticulture. How are the two disciplines related?
HJ: Both are concerned with natural beauty, with growing plants, with human pleasures, subjects that demand reflection and understanding— and patience.
KM: Did you have a mentor? Tell us about him or her.
HJ: Above all, André Louis Simon, founder of the Wine & Food Society in the 1930s, author of 100 books and the father of wine education. We met when he was 84 and I was 22. He entrusted me with his magazine, Wine & Food—through which I met my other great influence, Elizabeth David. My other mentors are writers I adore, above all PG Wodehouse.
KM: I won’t ask about your favorite wine, but is there a type of wine that you really don’t care for?
HJ: Generally Sauvignon Blanc, except good Sancerre.
KM: What sort of books do you read for pleasure?
HJ: History and Biography. Happy novels. Classical poetry.
KM: A number of years ago, you donated your archive of nearly 60 years of wine writing to the University of California Davis Library. How did you decide on an American institution to house your papers?
HJ: When we moved to a smaller house in 2013, I realized that the old attic was full of my research notes, drafts of The World Atlas of Wine and my other books and articles, etc. What institution might want them? There is no wine collection anywhere to match the Shields Library of UC Davis, and happily they were interested. These papers sparked a new interest in wine writing as the other end, so to speak, of the process that starts with grape growing and winemaking, the library’s core topics. I quickly introduced my friend and colleague Jancis Robinson, who gave her papers, then my old buddy Bob Thompson and others. Warren Winiarski [founder of Stags Leap Wine Cellars] became enthused with this aspect and has been generous in endowing and forwarding the work, as have many others.
KM: I read recently that in the 1960s, at the beginning of your wine writing career, Britons drank on average just a third of a glass a week. Between then and now, Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book (published annually since 1977) has sold 12 million copies, and the World Atlas of Wine, first published in 1971, has sold close to 4 million. And in that time, wine consumption in the UK has increased twelvefold. What influence do you believe your work has had on that growth?
HJ: I was lucky with my timing, as were a lot of others. My first book, Wine, apparently inspired a lot of people who took up wine as a living in all sorts of ways. My atlas, five years later, was a huge investment, caught the eye of (among others) Time-Life books and has since, in eight editions, sold very near five million copies in 14 languages. With my total sales of 20 million books, I must have had some influence. Mainly, I think, because I never get too technical or overload people with information they can’t really use. My masterstroke was getting Jancis Robinson to join me when I was getting tired after four atlases.
KM: You have three children. When your children were young, how did you teach them about wine?
HJ: By osmosis, I guess. It was always on the table, formed a (minor) part of the conversation, was available if they wanted to try it. If I taught them anything it was how wine fits into life, as a pleasurable extra, food- and fun-enhancer. Then it was up to them. Red, our son, is now selling some great English sparkling wines, some of our favourite drinks. Kitty, our younger daughter, wrote Wine, a Woman’s Guide—which is light and witty. It’s not central to any of their lives: in other words, they’ve learned the essential point.
KM: I’m sure various young wine writers over the years have asked you for advice. What advice do you give to young wine writers?
HJ: Just write, there is no other way. You can pitch it high or low, but remember it’s the reader who matters. Imagine you’re writing them a letter.
KM: If you could do any other job what would it be?
HJ: If I could paint, a painter. If I could play, a musician. But trees and forestry are my passion, so I’d be a forester.
KM: Tell us something about you that would surprise most people to learn.
HJ: I’m an untaught amateur. I’m curious. I write because I want to learn. But perhaps you’ve guessed that.